‘It’s a relief:’ Fields pleads guilty to federal charges

Susan Bro at a memorial last year for her daughter Heather Heyer. Bro says she's relieved to not have to go through another trial. Photo: Eze Amos Susan Bro at a memorial last year for her daughter Heather Heyer. Bro says she’s relieved to not have to go through another trial. Photo: Eze Amos

Some victims of the August 12, 2017, car attack are breathing a sigh of relief that they won’t have to endure a second trial, after the white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crimes on March 27.

In a state trial in December, James Alex Fields, Jr., a 21-year-old from Maumee, Ohio, was found guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, and other charges for killing Heyer and severely injuring dozens of other anti-racist protesters when he drove into a crowd on Fourth Street—an event that many have called an act of domestic terror.

A Charlottesville jury recommended he serve a life sentence plus 419 years in prison, but Fields still faced federal charges. His guilty plea agreement means he’ll avoid the possibility of being sentenced to death.

“It’s a relief to think that we don’t have to go through another trial,” says Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. “It was exhausting the first time.”

She also called it a relief that Fields, who initially pleaded not guilty to the hate crimes, has finally acknowledged his guilt, and admitted that he willfully caused bodily injury to the group of protesters celebrating on Fourth Street because of their race, color, religion, or national origin. Now, “he can get on with his life and I can get on with mine,” says Bro.

Fields told the judge he’d been receiving therapy and taking medication for mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizoid personality, and explosive onset disorders since he was 6 years old. But when asked if he was under the influence of any medicine or alcohol that would interfere with his ability to enter the plea freely and voluntarily, he said, “I’m feeling normal, sir.”

Fields, now sporting a thick, scruffy beard that stuck out about an inch off his face, was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs by multiple U.S. Marshals.

In exchange for Fields’ guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski explained that a 30th charge, which carried the possibility of the death penalty, would be dropped. Therefore, his maximum punishment would be another life sentence.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said he thought the plea agreement struck a good balance between punishment and protecting the interests of his victims, and that it, “vindicated—to the extent you can ever vindicate—the loss of life in respect to Heather Heyer.”

“There’s no point in killing him. It would not bring back Heather,” says her mother.

Bro has remained in the spotlight as racial tensions boil in the wake of the rally where her daughter died, which brought Fields and hundreds of other white supremacists and neo-Nazis to town, and emboldened others across the country. She’s the co-founder of the Heather Heyer Foundation, which seeks to honor the life of the 32-year-old paralegal and activist through scholarship opportunities for people passionate about bringing peaceful social change.

Says Bro, “Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here.”